The World Health Organization raised the level of its pandemic influenza alert Wednesday from phase 4 to phase 5, indicating a worldwide outbreak could be on the horizon, and local health care officials reiterated Thursday that the swine flu virus has yet to reach Cambodia.
At a news conference at the Ministry of Health, the WHO said the increase marked the first time the organization has issued a phase 5 alert, signifying a growth in global fears surrounding the illness as it spreads to more countries. As of Wednesday, the virus had resulted in eight confirmed deaths, according to the WHO.
“We know the influenza is a virus that spreads easily from human to human. If it spreads more widely, it will be the final phase 6,” said Dr Michael O’Leary, country director for the WHO in Cambodia. “If or when it does come to Cambodia, it will challenge the health system,” he said.
According to the WHO, phase 5 means the virus is now spreading among humans in at least two countries in one region, which the health organization identified as the US and Mexico. The highest level on the scale is phase 6, which represents a worldwide pandemic.
Health officials at the UN public health agency said that as of Thursday nine countries had officially reported 148 cases of swine flu since word of the H1N1 virus first surfaced in Mexico this week. To date, no Asian nation has reported any laboratory-confirmed cases. The closest nation to Cambodia experiencing swine flu is New Zealand, with three confirmed cases.
Dr O’Leary said since the number of global cases remains small, the ultimate impact of the disease remains largely unknown.
“We don’t know yet how serious this virus will be. It may be a relatively mild virus. It might be more serious,” he said.
Secretary of State for the Ministry of Health Eng Huot said the government is monitoring the country’s borders for swine flu by handing out health declaration forms to visitors checking for telltale symptoms of the illness, such as a fever, coughing, headache or lethargy. He said airports, harbors and border crossings began using the questionnaires this week, though they have not turned up any potential cases.
“We have not yet found the virus,” he said. “Now it is level 5. If it continues up to level 6 we have no way to treat it.”
He said the ministry has stockpiled approximately 15,750 packets of the antiviral drug Tamiflu, and has been running media campaigns to raise public awareness about swine flu.
Various ministers, NGOs and health groups are also collaborating to share information and technical support.
Health officials repeated Thursday that people were not at risk of infection from eating pork products or coming into contact with pigs.
“The virus that we face now is a human virus that transmits from human to human,” Dr O’Leary said.
Those who fall ill with flu-like symptoms and have traveled to an infected area or come into contact with someone from an infected area are asked to call the Ministry of Health through its hotlines on 089 663 567 or 012 488 981.